More Democracy Won’t Fix Education

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By Angela Panel Scioli

Believe it or not, our democracy is more democratic than it has ever been. That is the problem.

Alexander Hamilton was a real guy before he was a hit on Broadway. Were he alive today, he would be amazed by our naïveté. Majority rule is not a problem if the majority is well educated and can think critically about the complicated issues of the day, demand specific policies that will address those issues, and assess the reliability of sources regarding the candidates and issues.  But an angry majority lacking those skills makes for a frightening specter. Right, America?

Our Founding Fathers were a fairly privileged lot. They built the American democracy with a keen awareness that the vast majority of the population was not properly educated. They knew an uneducated majority could be swayed by simple speeches, manipulative media and fear. To insulate the fledgling democracy against that threat, they made sure the “mob” had very limited direct influence on our institutions of government. The sole body directly elected by the common people was the House of Representatives. The Senate was appointed by state legislatures, the electoral college carefully guarded the presidency, and judges were appointed by the President and approved by the Senate. The uneducated majority might vote, but their actual influence would be minimal.  

Around 1900, Progressives sought to make the democracy more . . . democratic! They passed the 17th amendment allowing for the direct election of senators by the people. Primaries, caucuses and state laws turned the electoral college into more of a rubber stamp. After the contentious 1968 Democratic Convention, the party conventions were also “democratized” to allow for more participation.  

The good news? Our democracy is more democratic than ever before in history! And many think it should become even more so. And that’s the bad news. We are putting the (democracy) cart before the (public education) horse. We have allowed for shocking levels of inequality in our schools, to the degree that a court case, the Leandro case, made the courts the feeble guardians of our most vulnerable youth. We have cut per pupil spending in real dollars, cut supplies and support staff, and irreparably damaged the teacher preparation pipeline. We have created a grading system that assigned 682 public schools in NC a grade of “D” or “F”  but did not offer those same schools additional resources or support.  

And our latest idea? Replace the public schools altogether. We are looking to emulate Tennessee’s Achievement School District program. Through the ASD, the state runs the “failing” schools or allows a private charter company to do so. Gary Henry, a researcher at Vanderbilt University, testified to a legislative committee that students in charter schools did not do any better than other low-performing schools. Tennessee’s former ASD superintendent Chris Barbic, who resigned in 2015, determined that the charter concept cannot be transferred to neighborhood schools; he realized that charters cannot magically overcome generational poverty. Apparently, experience is an efficient teacher.  

Not only is this outcome a tragedy for the students attending these failing schools, this growing “education deficit” is a very frightening reality that already threatens our democracy.  

As Thomas Jefferson said, “We must attend first to the education of the common people [so] on their good sense we may rely”.  In North Carolina, we have not heeded that advice.  We have sacrificed our public schools on an altar of speculation, and we are finding many reformers to be “charter”latans who make great promises but can’t deliver.  Our democracy, if this election is any indication, is not far behind.  We must recommit ourselves to the fact that our public schools are the most important institution for the success of our democracy.

And then, unlike in the past, our education deficit won’t require a democracy deficit.

 


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